A cycle ride around the Isle of Wight

When I offered my teen son a weekend away of his choice I didn’t expect him to request a cycling holiday. I’d had visions of us seeing the sights in a European city. But I couldn’t go back on my promise so after much deliberation we settled on a cycle ride around the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight promotes itself as a cycling island; no doubt helped by Lonely Planet announcing it as one of the ten best cycling destinations in the world. It has over 200 miles of cycle tracks and bridleways, it never rains (at least when I visit) and has smooth pothole free roads (Oxfordshire County Council take note).

Round the island cycle route map, Isle of Wight
Round the island cycle route map, Isle of Wight

I decided we’d tackle the round island cycle route, although we did detour from this a couple of times. Whilst road cyclists can easily complete the 65 mile route in a day we split it in two, with a halfway stop at Whitwell. Although I’m reasonably fit I’m not a regular cyclist and I didn’t fancy cycling from dawn to dusk just to get round the island in a day!

Day one: arrival in Cowes

It’s expensive to take your car to the Isle of Wight in peak season. And it makes no sense to drive over and then find somewhere to park for the weekend. Hence my first task was to research other options, from bringing our own bikes on the train, to parking in Southampton to alternative ferry routes.

Cannons at West Cowes
Cannons at West Cowes

The best combination for us, in terms of price and convenience, was to take the train from our home town to West Cowes. Actually the train only goes as far as Southampton Central but our ticket included the short bus ride to Southampton Quay and the Red Jet over to Cowes.

We then hired bikes from Wight Cycle Hire, based in Yarmouth. These were delivered to our Airbnb in West Cowes the night before our ride started. They weren’t fancy road bikes but they did the job and, a revelation, my saddle was much comfier than that on my own bike. The cycle hire shop also offered an island back up service which was reassuring as I didn’t have a puncture repair kit or tools.

Isle of Wight round island cycle signposts
Isle of Wight round island cycle signposts

Day two: Cowes to Whitwell

Our first day of cycling dawned. The Airbnb had a posh Nespresso machine but despite watching a YouTube tutorial I couldn’t work out how to use it. Fortunately Costa was only ten minutes down the hill. Half an hour later, and full of caffeine, porridge and bacon we were set to conquer the island.

Round the island cycle trail, IOW
Round the island cycle trail, IOW

I’d decided to cycle in an anti clockwise direction, to make use of the forecast westerlies. Although there wasn’t much of a breeze in Cowes I wanted the wind to be a help, not a hindrance, particularly along the south coast. It also meant we’d finish our cycle ride with a trip on the floating bridge from East to West Cowes.

Newtown saltmarsh, Isle of Wight
Newtown saltmarsh, Isle of Wight

It took us a while to get used to the bikes after leaving Cowes. Faced with the first short hilly section I changed gear and my chain immediately came off. Whilst it was easy enough to put back on it did dent my confidence a little. It also gave me an excuse to walk up the first hill of the day!

After our early drama, our route took us inland along quiet lanes away from the coast. At Newtown we took a breather, stopping at the salt marshes for a few minutes to take photos, drink water and put on suncream.

Yarmouth cycle hire and cafe
Yarmouth cycle hire and cafe

On again, along flat and quiet country roads. We didn’t see much traffic but there were a few other cyclists out and about, all cheerfully saying hi to us. We felt a little out of place as we were the only cyclists in non cycling gear carrying day packs on hire bikes. Everyone else looked the part, with road bikes and cycling jerseys.

Yarmouth old railway line, Isle of Wight
Yarmouth old railway line, Isle of Wight

We hadn’t yet paid for our bikes so stopped at the cycle hire shop in Yarmouth to do this and check route options. We also made room for elevenses at the cafe next door, Off the Rails. It would have been rude not to!

From Yarmouth we took the off road cycle route along the old railway line towards Freshwater. Although lovely to be away from road traffic the track was very busy with other bike hirers, walkers, dogs on extending leads and free range children. I almost wish we’d taken the road.

View towards West Wight from IOW round island cycle trail
View towards West Wight from IOW round island cycle trail

At Freshwater we turned east, hitting our first big hill of the day. I needed to stop for some photos (ahem, a rest) halfway up. My excuse was justified, as we had the best views of the weekend!

A little later, at Compton Farm I made a bad decision. Faced with another hill and lots of fast traffic I decided a better option would be to go cross country. I didn’t have a detailed map but there was a byway sign pointing in the direction we wanted to go so we followed it.

Road out of Freshwater Bay
Road out of Freshwater Bay

The first section, to Brook Farm campsite, was flat and paved. Great. But upon leaving the farm the route took us up a very steep rutted track, not at all suitable for our bikes. We got off and pushed to the top to be greeted with spectacular coastal views and a field full of cows and calves.

Cows near Compton Farm
Cows near Compton Farm

We sat on a bench just in front of the field gate, hoping they’d move away but they were intent on watching us back. Eventually I gave in, shooed them away and pushed my bike through the field. They ignored me. My son had already decided he was going to avoid them, by lifting his bike over a barbed wire fence and walking through the adjacent field.

Crop fields near Brighstone, Isle of Wight
Crop fields near Brighstone, Isle of Wight

After the field of cows came a field of blue butterflies, literally three or four on every thistle head. I tried to photograph them but whenever I got near they’d fly away. It was an incredible sight.

A while later we reached a road and were finally able to get back on our bikes and head to our lunch destination, Chessell Pottery Cafe.

Our afternoon cycle from Hulverstone to Brighstone and on to Chale was almost perfect. Quiet country roads, a restored water wheel and pretty villages. We could hear, and sometimes see, the vehicles whizzing along the main coast road; it was a relief not to be on it.

Blackgang Chine viewpoint
Blackgang Chine viewpoint

However the day ended back on the main road with a huge climb up to Blackgang Chine viewpoint. I’m not ashamed to say I walked most of it. Up top we sat on the benches, enjoyed the view and listened to the screams emanating from the theme park below us. Thankfully it wasn’t too far to our B&B for the evening as I was more than ready for a shower and rest.

Overnight in Whitwell

On into Whitwell, for a perfectly located overnight stopover at Kingsmede B&B. They’re used to cyclists and have a handy bike storage shed at the front of their house.

It was bliss to have a shower, make a coffee (with a kettle!) and relax in our room. Later we walked to the village pub, The White Horse Inn, for our evening meal. Good food, relatively cheap and large portions. Indeed so large that I couldn’t face dessert!

Day three: Whitwell to Cowes

After a good night’s sleep and a filling breakfast we set out again the next morning.

Ventnor greeted us with a big hill (another photo stop required halfway up) and tantalising views of the coast. My only regret of this trip was not having the time to stop and explore the places we passed.

Isle of Wight cycling, near Wroxall
Isle of Wight cycling, near Wroxall

Between Ventnor and Wroxall we followed a lovely, but of course undulating, back road. At Wroxall we left the round the island cycle route to join the Red Squirrel trail.

Back in 2016 when I created my UK bucket list I included cycling the 32 mile Red Squirrel Trail on the Isle of Wight. My plans had moved on since writing that list but I still wanted to include a section of the trail on this ride.

Red squirrel trail, IOW
Red squirrel trail, IOW

For much of the route it follows an old railway track, but not the section we joined at Wroxall. We cycled along grassy tracks and through sandy fields. We’d been used to following the large blue and white signs and this part of the trail threw up a few route finding challenges. That was, until we discovered the route was still signposted but with much smaller signs. Despite this we missed a turning at Merstone and ended up cycling towards Newport rather than Sandown. Whoops.

Pedallers, cafe on the Red Squirrel Trail
Pedallers, cafe on the Red Squirrel Trail

Back on track, and finally on the old railway track, we stopped for morning coffee at Pedallers’ Cafe another cyclists haunt. It offers a cycle repair station which was fortunate for the chap who somehow punctured his tyre right outside the entrance!

We had another short stop at Alverstone. I have a mission to see red squirrels on the Isle of Wight. Although I’ve seen them in other places around the UK they’ve eluded me on the island. Alverstone Nature Reserve has a hide, frequented by red squirrels, so we parked the bikes whilst I took a walk through the woods. As expected they were once again hiding. My quest continues.

Adgestone quiet lane
Adgestone quiet lane

From Alverstone to Adgestone we cycled along a quiet road. This supposedly has a recommended speed of 15 mph but I’m not sure the two motorists we met along the lane knew this.

At least there were only two cars. It was a different matter in Brading. A constant stream of cars overtook us, some passing a little too close for comfort. I’d already decided that we wouldn’t take the island cycle route along the busy main road to Bembridge. Instead we detoured off through Brading Marshes, an RSPB reserve, to reach St Helen’s where we briefly encountered traffic madness again.

Seaview, IOW
Seaview, IOW

The round island cycle route splits at Nettlestone. We chose the seafront route rather than staying inland. It was an exciting moment to reach the north coast. Unlike the south coast there’s lots going on in the Solent; it’s easy to get distracted!

We cycled west along the seafront, looking for a lunch stop. As it was a warm sunny day the beaches and parks were incredibly busy. We stopped at one cafe but decided it would take some time to get served so carried on into central Ryde.

On the seafront at Ryde
On the seafront at Ryde

After lunch at the aptly named Cafe on the Hill we continued, slightly inland, to Fishbourne. The track was off road but with lots of downs and ups. It was almost depressing having a long downhill section as you knew you’d be paying for it as soon as you reached the bottom!

Quarr medieval abbey, Isle of Wight
Quarr medieval abbey, Isle of Wight

We passed Quarr Abbey, busy with afternoon sightseers. Not sweaty cyclists. At Wootton we crossed the creek and I decided the end was almost in sight. A slightly premature thought as there were yet more ups and downs to negotiate.

Chain ferry between East and West Cowes, IOW
Chain ferry between East and West Cowes, IOW

Yet, as we finally arrived into East Cowes I didn’t want the ride to end. We took the chain ferry across to West Cowes, parked our bikes in the Cycle Hub and went in search of an ice cream. We’d finished. We hadn’t fallen off our bikes, we were still speaking to each other and we hadn’t got too lost. I call that a success!

More info

  • We loosely followed the Round the Island Cycle Route, with added Red Squirrel Trail. We cycled around 70 miles, height gain (and loss) was around 4700 feet.
  • I used the printed Isle of Wight cycle map for planning which was good value (£4.99) albeit slightly dated. It does not include contours!
  • This cycle ride around the Isle of Wight is achievable by most of average fitness. Take your time (2+ days) if you can as there’s plenty to see along the way. If you’re unsure about the hills you might like to consider hiring an electric bike.

The Coffin Works and Back to Backs museums in Birmingham

The British Museum might have eight million items but that’s just too overwhelming for me. Instead I prefer small museums with a dedicated focus. That’s why the Coffin Works in Birmingham made it on to my UK bucket list. I recently visited the Coffin Works and another heritage attraction, the Back to Backs. Was it worth the bucket list entry?

Coffin Works

The Coffin Works museum is around 15 minutes walk from Birmingham New Street railway station. Along the way you’ll pass shiny new buildings, cranes and roadworks. All reflecting the huge changes to Birmingham’s landscape over the last few years.

Newman Brothers coffin works, Birmingham
Newman Brothers coffin works, Birmingham

From 1894 until 1998 the Newman Brothers manufactured coffin furniture from a factory on Fleet Street. After it closed the last owner, Joyce Green, fought to turn it into a museum. Her dream was realised and visitors can now discover the story of the company that once made coffin handles and decorations (not coffins!) for luminaries such as Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother.

Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin Works, Birmingham

Entrance to the Coffin Works is by guided tour only. The tour starts outside in the courtyard and takes in the stamp shop, warehouse, office and sewing room. Our guide, Cornellius, talked us through the different jobs carried out in each area and demonstrated how some of the machinery worked. One thing came across loud and clear; health and safety wasn’t paramount in those days!

Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin Works, Birmingham

What made the tour come alive was the stories of those who had worked at the Coffin Works. From Mr Ray, the gentleman who worked as the die sinker through to Diamond Lil who read tea leaves and worked in the plating shop.

Coffin handles, Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin handles, Coffin Works, Birmingham

In the warehouse we discovered shelves full of original stock. Cornellius explained that from the late 1960s all coffin furniture used in cremations had to be combustible so plastic fittings became commonplace. This was one factor in the eventual closure of the factory as the mark up on plastic fittings couldn’t compete with the metal furnishings.

The office was home to Joyce Green who joined the company, aged 18, as a secretary and eventually became the managing director and final owner. Much to the disdain of several male workers! Joyce had to contend with striking workers, a changing business climate and the eventual closure of the factory. Sadly she never got to see the opening of this museum but I’m sure she’d be happy with the results.

Coffin paraphernalia, Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin paraphernalia, Coffin Works, Birmingham

In the sewing room we learnt about shrouds and linings. A row of sewing machines lined the wall next to the windows, to ensure the seamstresses were able to work in good light.

However, pride of place went to a wedding dress made from shroud materials. Sheila, a seamstress, was too poor to buy her own wedding dress. Instead she created one out of stolen offcuts of lace and satin, coming in early to obtain the materials and then hiding them around her belly during the working day. Not many people get married in a shroud!

Sewing room, Coffin Works
Sewing room, Coffin Works

The tour ended in a small room with pictures and clippings from famous funerals. Although we’d only been onsite an hour or so it was an engaging and entertaining look at a business I knew nothing about, it definitely deserved its place on my bucket list.

Back to Backs

From the Coffin Works we hotfooted it across town to our next destination, the Back to Backs. These were a type of housing, built around a courtyard, once common in Birmingham and many other industrial towns in the 19th Century.

Back to Backs, Birmingham
Back to Backs, Birmingham

The houses at Inge Street are the last remaining courtyard of back to back houses in Birmingham. The National Trust now owns these properties and has renovated them to show what they might have looked like during different time periods. It makes a lovely change to see the National Trust preserving working class homes rather than stately houses.

Inside back to backs house, Birmingham
Inside back to backs house, Birmingham

Again, entry is by guided tour, bookable in advance, so you’ll need to be organised!

The tour starts outside, with a geography lesson. As I’m not particularly familiar with Birmingham it was helpful to get some bearings, even if I didn’t always know where the guide was referring to. We then walked through an alleyway into the courtyard and on into the houses.

Once inside we heard stories of the residents who lived there. We learnt about the lives of an 1840s Jewish toy maker, an 1870s glass eye maker and a 1930s lock maker. The houses are decorated as per the time periods. Possessions were minimal and space at a premium; be aware of low doorways and steep and winding staircases!

Bedroom, Birmingham Back to backs
Bedroom, Birmingham Back to backs

One of the most sobering rooms is the one which hasn’t been renovated. The other rooms all look as if they’d provide a level of comfort, commensurate with the times, but in the original room the ceilings, windows and walls are in very poor state of repair. We were shown photographs of the houses shortly before renovation; I wouldn’t have wanted to live there!

Inside George Saunders tailor shop, Birmingham back to backs
Inside George Saunders tailor shop, Birmingham back to backs

The final house was the shop of George Saunders, a tailor, who came from St Kitts in 1958. It was interesting to learn about his life in Birmingham and the difficulties he faced as a Caribbean immigrant. The shop is kitted out in 1970s style, adorned with half finished suits and clothing patterns. 

Outside in the courtyard are the shared toilets and laundry room. The laundry room contains a mangle; I remember using one of these after swimming lessons at secondary school! Indeed there were a few items on the tour which were familiar to me from my grandparents’ house.

The laundry, Back to Backs, Birmingham
The laundry, Back to Backs, Birmingham

After the tour finished we spent another 15 minutes in the National Trust traditional sweet shop trying to decide on some treats for the train journey home. There was just too much choice!

I’m happy to say that the Back to Backs tour perfectly complemented our earlier visit to the Coffin Works. I highly recommend both museums as they give a fantastic insight life in Birmingham over the last century.

A wander around Cotswold Sculpture Park, Gloucestershire

I’m a sucker for quirky attractions and the Cotswold Sculpture Park fits the description perfectly. It’s a fabulous place to visit even if, like me, you’re not particularly into art.

Cotswold Sculpture Trail - with added robin
Cotswold Sculpture Trail – with added robin

Cotswold Sculpture Park

Upon arrival you’re given a leaflet detailing the sculptures and their prices. There are over 150 sculptures, created by more than 70 artists. The sculptures vary in size and sculpture medium; from Portland limestone to scrap metal. There really is a sculpture to please everyone, whether you prefer modern or traditional, abstract or figurative.

Cotswold Sculpture Park
Cotswold Sculpture Park

I’ve visited a couple of sculpture trails previously which have felt like outdoor high end art galleries. This trail was different, a fun wander around ten acres of woodland and garden. The grounds are a little rough and ready but that made it more enjoyable for me. Think wildlife friendly garden rather than manicured lawns and perfect borders!

The Ostrich, David Hartland, Cotswold Sculpture Trail
The Ostrich, David Hartland

The park is owned by David Hartland, who is also a sculptor. His pieces, mostly made from scrap metal, are instantly recognisable and include the Morris Minor on the tower at the entrance. The owner’s sculptures are the only permanent pieces and are not for sale. The other sculptures are either sold or returned to the artist at the end of the season.

Cotswold Sculpture Park
Cotswold Sculpture Park

I think we managed to spot all of the sculptures. Some blend in well into their surroundings. Others stick out like a sore thumb! It would have been good to learn more about the sculptures and artists as we visited them although I later discovered many of their profiles are on the website.

Cotswold Sculpture Trail
Cotswold Sculpture Trail

The sculpture park is Tardis like, there is so much to see. We reached as far as the toilet building (beware, it’s the opposite end from the entrance) and assumed we’d seen almost everything. How wrong we were! Leave yourself a good couple of hours to see everything.

Cotswold Sculpture Trail
Cotswold Sculpture Trail

We all had our favourites but I loved this sculpture. Not sure it would really fit my pocket sized back garden but I’d snap it up if I had a spare acre.

One other sculpture which garnered a lot of attention was a bronze statue of Icarus by Nicola Godden. It was superb, yours for just £33,000!

Cotswold Sculpture Park
Cotswold Sculpture Park

The sculpture prices ranged from £20 for a robin to an eye watering £60,000  for a bear made out of galvanised chicken wire. Most pieces were in the hundreds or low thousands range. Whilst I admired many of them I think they probably look at their best in a woodland setting, not a small town garden.

Cotswold Sculpture Trail
Cotswold Sculpture Trail

After you’ve finished head to the onsite cafe, The Poppin Tearoom, which serves hot and cold snacks and drinks. I highly recommend sitting outside and enjoying coffee and cake if the weather allows. It’s a great way to round off your visit.

Cotswold Sculpture Trail
Cotswold Sculpture Trail

More info:

The Cotswold Sculpture Park is in Somerford Keynes near Cirencester. It’s open from April to September, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, entrance fee applicable. No dogs or picnics allowed onsite.

Campsite review: Thistledown Farm, Nympsfield, Gloucs

I’m not going to beat around the bush. Thistledown, an organic farm on the western edge of the Cotswolds, makes it onto my list of favourite ever campsites.

Thistledown pond and cafe
Thistledown pond and cafe

That said, if you prefer organised entertainment and extensive facilities it’s probably not the site for you. Read on to find out more.

The negatives?

You need to know…

Wheelbarrows for your luggage, Thistledown Farm
Wheelbarrows for your luggage, Thistledown Farm

No cars are allowed on the pastures, yay! Depending on where you camp it’s a 5-10 minute steep walk downhill with your gear. There are wheelbarrows to borrow. Or, for £5, you can have your gear transported to your chosen pitch in a buggy.

Compost toilet, Thistledown Farm
Compost toilet, Thistledown Farm

There are no flushing toilets. It’s compost only if you’re camping in the pastures. Three simple rules – men and boys must sit, you add a handful of wood chips after a poo and put the lid down after you’ve finished.

There are event style portable loos in the elderflower orchard (where cars are also allowed) if you really cannot cope.

Our camping spot, Thistledown Farm
Our camping spot, Thistledown Farm

There are no electrical hook ups. This doesn’t bother me one jot as we’ve never needed it. At least not until the teen discovered hair straighteners.

If you’re not fazed by the above then you will love Thistledown Farm. We did! As for the positives. Well, where do I start?

The space

We camped over a Bank Holiday weekend. The site was rammed (as described by the chap who works there). You can see what I mean below. Hardly room to move.

Pasture 3, Thistledown Farm campsite
Pasture 3, Thistledown Farm campsite

There are three different camping areas, split between the car free pastures and the elderflower orchard. There are no designated pitches, campsite rules state you should leave six metres between tents. Yes, you read that correctly, six metres. Even though the 70 acres of woodland and meadow could accommodate many more tents the owners wisely choose to restrict the numbers that can camp.

Thistledown tractor
Thistledown tractor

For children there’s a tractor. Marshmallows toasted over the camp fire. A stream. Kunekune pigs and rare breed sheep. And rope swings in the wood. There’s no artificial playground. Why would you need it?

Campfire at Thistledown Farm
Campfire at Thistledown Farm

Camp fires are encouraged. Bring your own wood or buy a bag on site (£7.50). Just don’t collect it from the woods; it’s a habitat!

Remember to look up from your fire too. Once your eyes have acclimatised you’ll be amazed by the stars. The lack of light pollution allows you to spot many more stars than usual.

The cafe

Thistledown cafe
Thistledown cafe

There’s a fabulous cafe on site (but do book in advance). It’s open for breakfast and lunch from Wednesday to Sunday. It also offers  pizza on Friday and Saturday evenings from April to October. It’s not cheap but the food is mostly organic, local and incredibly tasty.

Pizza at Thistledown cafe
Pizza at Thistledown cafe

Indeed I ate the best pizza of my life. A sour dough base, topped with spiced butternut squash puree, caramelised onions, goats cheese and wild garlic pesto. The pesto, made with fresh leaves from the wood, was out of this world. If it’s in season (April) when you visit you must try some!

The wildlife

Bluebell wood at Thistledown Farm
Bluebell wood at Thistledown Farm

The camping pastures are surrounded by mixed native woodland. In spring bluebells and wild garlic carpet the ground. Trails lead through the wood but get a map from reception otherwise you’ll probably end up following a badger track.

Thistledown Farm pond at sunset
Thistledown Farm pond at sunset

The whole site is set up to encourage wildlife. It’s a receptor (rehoming) site for slow worms and grass snakes. The pond by the cafe is full of newts.

There are badger sets throughout the wood; tidy your food away at night to stop the badgers helping themselves. Tawny owls might keep you awake; the dawn chorus will probably wake you up!

The sunrise

Thistledown Farm pond at sunrise
Thistledown Farm pond at sunrise

Sunrise is incredible. I’d got up early to look for badgers, but not early enough it seems. Instead I walked up to the pond and stone circle to watch the most magical sunrise. Aside from three geese and a couple of newly arrived swallows I was the only one there (well, it was 6am on a Sunday morning).

Thistledown stone circle at sunrise
Thistledown stone circle at sunrise

Later we ate breakfast in the early morning sun, watching the birds flitting between trees. Butterflies were out enjoying the warm weather. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

Breakfast time, Thistledown Farm
Breakfast time, Thistledown Farm

We did tear ourselves away from the campsite as there’s plenty to see locally, including Stroud farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, Woodchester Mansion (walkable from the campsite) and the viewpoint at Coaley Peak. All coming soon in another blog post!

More info:

  • We paid £68 for a family of four for two nights camping in the 3rd pasture. It’s cheaper to camp in the elderflower orchard, but for the full experience head to the pastures. Further details and online booking can be found on the Thistledown Farm website.